Child sitting by a waterfall Copyrighted image Credit: Mylaphotography | Dreamstime.com

Being able to organise our actions and experience is crucial for intelligent, aware, planned behaviour. It is something that children have to be able to do if they are to be in control of their own actions. If a child (or indeed a person of any age) has no way of organising their understanding of the world around them, then they will be unable to behave appropriately or effectively.

Psychologists call high-level mental abilities like these cognitive functions and use the name executive functions to refer to the set of functions that enable people to plan, initiate and carry through goal-directed behaviour in organised and 'thought out' ways. Psychologists also draw a distinction between 'high-level' cognitive functions such as integration, synthesis, planning, and organising, and more basic, 'low-level' cognitive functions such as processing information from our eyes, ears and so on.

What sorts of behaviour involve executive functions? The most important can be listed as:

  • learning new skills
  • planning and decision making
  • error correction or troubleshooting
  • initiating novel sequences of actions
  • dealing with danger or technical difficulty
  • conscious moment-to-moment control of behaviour
  • overcoming strong, habitual responses

Executive functioning is an important aspect of child development for several reasons:

 

First, the executive control of action is something that develops as children get older. A newborn baby has very little control of his or her behaviour, whereas a 10-year old child has a great deal of control (although not always as much as parents and teachers might like!).

Second, impairments in the control of action, or failures to develop sufficient levels of executive control, are generally thought to play a part in behavioural problems that can have negative effects on social relationships, mental development and learning.

Third, understanding what is involved in effective learning is vital for improving methods of teaching that we use to make the most of children's potential. Similarly, problems with organising and planning actions may underpin many different profiles of learning disability.

Gaining a better understanding of these deficits helps psychologists to target children in need of remedial support and to develop new techniques that open up their learning opportunities.

Simon says
It's Debbie's fifth birthday party. A group of children stand facing her mother at the front of the room. She is leading them in a game of 'Simon says'. In this game she shows simple actions, like putting her hands on her head, or jumping up and down. The children must either copy these actions, or ignore them. If Debbie's mother says 'Simon says, do this' then the children must copy the action that follows. If she says only 'do this' then the children must stay still and not copy her. Debbie's mother says 'Simon says, do this' and sits on the floor. All the children sit down as quickly as they can. She then says 'Simon says, do this', and jumps up again. All the children follow. Immediately she says 'do this' and sits down again. Half the children sit down. The other half put their hands over their mouths and giggle. The children who have sat down quickly realise their mistake and jump to their feet again.

So why did so many of the children mistakenly sit down? They might not have listened to or understood the instructions of the game. But first and foremost their behaviour is most likely a failure of executive function.

Their behaviour was automatic and momentarily it was beyond their conscious control. They acted first, and thought later. Within seconds of sitting down, or even in the same moment as they sat down, the children probably realised their mistake. Conversely, the children who ignored the adult's actions were able to resist what was most likely a strong urge to sit down. Their behaviour was guided by a greater level of 'executive' control.

In situations like this, there is a need to overcome a strong, habitual response. To succeed, the children have to inhibit the habitual response of copying. We call this ability inhibitory control and it's an important executive function.

Can you think of some examples?
Have a go at identifying examples from your own experience of 'slips of action', when something that you meant to do was overridden by automatic, habitual behaviour. One example might be dialling a familiar telephone number, only to realise when the person answers that you had meant to telephone someone else.

Here are some other examples that we came up with:

  • finding yourself taking the turning that you usually take every day on your way to work, when you were meant to be driving somewhere else
  • on the 2nd of January, writing the previous year’s date
  • going upstairs to fetch something, getting distracted by something else, and going back downstairs without the thing that you went to get in the first place

Everyday mistakes like these result from strongly automated behaviours taking over from a conscious plan to do something else. They are examples of momentary failures of executive function. The mistakes children make in the 'Simon says' game also result from a strongly automated set of behaviours (copying the adult again and again) overriding conscious planning.

 

As you can appreciate from the examples already given, 'executive function' is not a single, easily identifiable cognitive function. The term actually describes a set of related cognitive functions. For this reason executive function is referred to as fractionated, that is, it subdivides into different component processes. There are several competing theories of executive function, which describe these component processes in different ways, but commonly distinctions are made between cognitive flexibility, planning and inhibitory control.

Cognitive flexibility
Cognitive flexibility refers to the aspect of executive function that enables people to think and behave appropriately according to the changing needs of a complex environment, and in line with their plans and goals. One of the hallmarks of mature human behaviour is its flexibility and responsiveness to the constantly changing features and demands of the environment, particularly of the social environment. Executive function is concerned with how people organise their thinking and behaviour in order to act intelligently and flexibly in the face of complexity.

Planning
'Planning', in this context, is about intending to do something that will achieve a goal. Much human behaviour is goal-directed. People are able to organise their cognitive and behavioural resources in ways that enable them to achieve goals that are not the immediate consequence of one simple action.

Take, for example, the case of communicating with someone. Effective communication requires that there is an intention to say something. A lot of the time people are not aware of these intentions because the interactions are so over learned, as in the case of rather automated exchanges such as greetings and farewells. Sometimes, however, communicative intentions are more explicit, as in the case of planning to say something emotionally difficult or complex to someone. But in both cases there is some sort of goal in mind, and the communicative behaviour has to be organised in such a way as to achieve that goal. If you continue remorselessly with a plan to say something in a certain way irrespective of the contributions of the other person, the communication is unlikely to be very effective.

Another good example is the Tower of Hanoi task that psychologists have adapted as a research tool and that you can try here on OpenLearn. This involves careful pre-planning of the correct and simplest set of moves to transfer a pile of discs from one column to another, while following some rules.

Inhibitory control
One factor that underpins executive functioning is the ability to inhibit responses to stimuli. Why is this so important? If you were unable to inhibit responses to stimuli that do not relate to the task that you have planned to do, then it would probably be impossible to complete it and achieve your goal. You would be drawn from one stimulus to another, in a haphazard fashion, and it would be impossible to undertake any coherently organised action.

Executive control fails when there is difficulty in inhibiting responses to what are referred to as prepotent stimuli. A prepotent stimulus is a stimulus that draws a person's attention towards it, and which seems to cause the person to behave in a particular way - the prepotent response. Prepotency is a very important feature of effective everyday functioning. It is to be hoped, for example, that a red traffic light will always draw a driver's attention towards it, and cause the driver to behave in a certain way.

The development of executive functions
In the course of child development it is common to see infants and young children being easily distracted by 'inappropriate' prepotent stimuli, that is, stimuli that are nothing to do with the child's current plan of action.

For example, you might watch an eight month-old infant catch sight of a toy on the other side of the room and begin crawling towards it. It will be clear to you that they are enacting a plan to get the toy, but halfway across the room they notice a scrap of paper on the floor. This seems to 'capture' their behaviour and their attention. They pick it up, sit down and inspect it. The original plan is now lost and they have been catapulted onto another stream of behaviour, which might then involve another plan, which might itself get interrupted by another prepotent stimulus, and another, and then yet another.

This executive function analysis of a familiar scene gives one reason why infant behaviour can seem somewhat haphazard and disorganised to an adult onlooker - according to this view it is because executive functions are as yet undeveloped.

As executive function develops, so children's abilities to learn new skills improve, and they are increasingly able to behave in a planned, strategic and organised manner. They are able to stay 'on-task' longer. They are able, when necessary, to override habitual responses to prepotent stimuli. They become more skilled and flexible in 'orchestrating' elements of their thinking and behaviour, and they are able to engage in increasingly sophisticated planning and decision making. Inhibitory control is only one component of this developmental trajectory, but it is of fundamental importance.

Free will is something that most of us would agree is a special human characteristic. Understanding executive function reveals just how important these abilities are for human action – without them we couldn’t do anything, even if we had the will to do so.

About this extract

Adapted by John Oates from Executive functions in childhood: development and disorder by C Hughes, A Graham and A Grayson in Cognitive and Language Development in Children, edited by J Oates and A Grayson and published by Blackwell. This book is the third book accompanying the OU course Child Development.